When parents-to-be find out the sex of their child, family and friends begin to buy gifts according to gender. Girls receive pink clothing, and boys receive blue clothing. If parents choose not to know the sex of the child, generally clothing will be bought in gender-neutral colors like yellow and green. Buying babies’ clothing in specific gendered colors begins the socialization process, which will continue when toys are purchased— dolls for girls, trucks for boys. The teaching of gender continues in society and carries over into schools.
II. The Feminization of Teaching
III. Where Are the Gender Gaps in Schools?
A. Elementary School
B. High School
IV. International Gender Gaps
V. Single-Sex Schools
Schools socialize students in multiple ways, starting in kindergarten. Schools teach young students about the society they live in and their expectations of behavior. Citizenship is stressed in early education through activities such as saying the pledge of allegiance and singing the national anthem. How to conduct oneself appropriately and listen to authority are also highly valued in early schooling. Much time is spent on sitting in your assigned seat, lining up properly, and learning to listen attentively to teachers (Thorne 1993).
Beyond these practical socializing factors, many researchers argue that schools also socialize according to gender. Teachers treat boys and girls differently based on different expectations of behaviors and intellect. Teachers tend to accept when boys act out more and justify boys’ disruptions in the classroom as uniquely male features. Girls, however, are often reprimanded for similar behaviors, because teachers expect girls to be better behaved and less disruptive in class.
Teachers expect girls to be more studious and excel more in school, particularly in subjects like reading and writing; boys are favored in math and science. Girls receive better grades than boys, and they also receive more favorable evaluations from teachers. Teachers seem to appreciate girls’ cooperativeness and ease at communication and consistently rank girls higher on in-classroom behaviors. Girls may be better adapted to schools or may have different expectations than boys.
Young students are affected by gender socialization. In elementary school, boys and girls choose who is popular based on typical constructions of gender. Boys are thought to be popular when they are athletic and described as tough or cool. Popular girls are chosen because of their physical appearance, social skills, and academic success (Adler, Kless, and Adler 1992).
The Feminization of Teaching
A subtler way that schools reinforce gender is through the feminization of teaching. The feminization of teaching refers to the fact that the majority of teachers in the United States are women. Throughout elementary and high school, teachers tend to be women.
The field of education tends to replicate traditional gender hierarchies seen in other work environments, such as business. Although women dominate the status of teachers, a much higher percentage of education administrators, from principals and superintendents to positions in government, are men. Also, in colleges, more men are faculty members than women, particularly in math, science, and engineering fields.
The feminization of teaching has a long history in the United States. As early as 1880, 80 percent of elementary school teachers were women (Urban and Wagoner 2004). Schools originally hired women to teach because they could pay them less than men and were thought to be more nurturing and caring. It is debatable whether women make better teachers, but the high number of women teachers and the low level of women administrators shape how education is developed and taught, as well as how it is perceived by boys and girls.
What teachers and society expect of, teach, and demonstrate to children directly affects their opinions of themselves, their abilities, and what they are to hope for in school and in the future. Girls may think they are supposed to be good writers but not good at math, or boys may think they should not be elementary school teachers because teaching is a women’s job. It is hard to disentangle whether girls and boys learn differently or whether they are taught to think that boys and girls are different from an early age.
Where Are the Gender Gaps in Schools?
Debates over how and why children learn and perceive themselves in different ways continue, and evidence in schools shows that gaps exist between boys and girls in terms of achievement in the classroom, standardized tests, and completing schooling. These gaps vary. Some favor girls and others favor boys, beginning in elementary school and continuing throughout college and professional school.
Elementary school is the first formal schooling children receive, and it is primarily used to teach basic reading and math skills. In elementary schools, differences between boys and girls emerge. Since the 1950s, girls have consistently received higher grades in all elementary school subjects, even math and science, which are traditionally thought of as male subjects (Alexander and Eckland 1974). Girls receive better ratings by teachers, better grades on report cards, and are less likely to repeat grades. Boys are more likely to repeat grades or drop out of school (American Association of University Women 1998). Girls seem to excel in the early years of education; however, this is not the case when it comes to standardized testing.
On standardized tests, such as proficiency tests, gaps between boys and girls appear. Girls do significantly better on tests of reading and writing; boys do better on tests of science and math (American Association of University Women 1998). These gaps sometimes puzzle researchers who wonder why girls’ abilities in the classroom do not translate to tests and why boys’ high test achievement does not translate into the classroom.
High school graduation rates suggest that girls are outpacing boys in schools and earning more degrees, but many obstacles stand in girls’ ways for future success. Selection of classes becomes a cause of concern in high school. From early on, gaps in tests scores between boys and girls show that boys do better in math. The gap between math and science classes taken in high school is prevalent. Girls have increased their participation in math courses, but boys still take more advanced courses than girls. In science classes, boys are more likely to take all core classes, including biology, chemistry, and physics. Girls are less likely to take physics courses.
Conversely, girls take more English classes than boys, and boys are more likely to be enrolled in remedial English courses. Girls also take more foreign language, fine arts, and social science courses. Over time, girls have been increasingly taking more math and science courses, but they still lag behind boys.
Historically, more men than women attended and completed college education, but this trend has recently changed. By 1980, men and women enrolled equally in college, and, currently, more than 56 percent of undergraduate students in the United States are women (Freeman 2004). Women enroll and complete bachelor’s degree at higher rates than men; however, women’s increased enrollment and attainment in college do not mean that equity has been reached. Many inequalities still exist for women in college.
Majors in college are highly sex segregated. Although women make up the majority of college students, certain fields seem regulated to men and women. Men earn a large majority of engineering, physical science, and computer science degrees. Women earn only 20 percent of engineering and 28 percent of computer science degrees. Women earn 41 percent of physical science degrees. The fields of business, mathematics, social sciences, and history have relativity equal numbers of men and women earning degrees. Women dominate the fields of education, completing 77 percent of degrees, and health professions, completing 84 percent of degrees.
Of interest, the fields that are clearly dominated by men, engineering and computer science, have the highest starting salaries of all college degrees; the fields dominated by women, education and health professions, have much lower starting salaries. The starting salaries of men and women after college cause concern for some scholars who believe that majors are a way to segregate men and women financially.
The types of degrees earned by men and women differ, as do the types of colleges and universities they attend. Even though women are more likely to be enrolled in college, the colleges that women enroll in are less likely to be prestigious, selective schools (Jacobs 1999). This group largely includes prominent engineering schools. Women are more likely than men to enroll in two-year institutions such as community colleges.
Graduate and professional schools, like college majors, are sex segregated as well. Women are more likely to enroll in master’s degree programs than men, but within these programs segregation similar to those seen in college occurs. The transition from master’s to doctoral programs is less common for women, as they comprise only 45 percent of doctoral students. In professional fields, women’s enrollment lags behind men. Roughly 39 percent of dentistry students and 43 percent of medical students are women. Law schools have almost reached parity in gender enrollment, with 47 percent of students being women.
International Gender Gaps
Gender gaps in educational enrollment and completion of degrees exist in the United States, but what are the patterns of gender gaps in other countries? Similar gaps in standardized testing exist in other countries. In 2003, the Program for International Student Assessment tested 15-year-olds in math, science, and reading in 41 countries. Patterns similar to the United States are present in other countries. On average, boys performed better on tests of mathematics (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD] 2004). In 12 countries, however, the difference between boys’ and girls’ performance in math was not statistically significant. In all but one country, girls significantly outperformed boys on reading tests. In science tests, more variation occurs. In some countries, girls perform better than boys, but the opposite is true in other countries. On average, there is a minimal difference in science scores between boys and girls. Gender gaps seem to be consistent across countries, which is also true for educational enrollment.
In most industrialized countries, women have higher college enrollments than men. On average, they represent 53 percent of all students enrolled in tertiary education (OECD 2004). In some more conservative and traditional countries, such as Turkey and Germany, women still lag behind men in college enrollment, but in 13 industrialized nations, 55 percent of college students are women. In three countries, more than 60 percent of college students are women.
Gender gaps occur at all levels of schooling and across cultures, but the gaps do not always fall in one direction. Boys and girls have different advantages in schooling, creating a complex puzzle. Trends suggest that women have surpassed men, yet men still hold advantages in the work force. There is no clear answer explaining why girls excel in some areas and boys in others, and the controversies surrounding gender and education continue beyond how girls and boys learn and where they succeed.
The debates over how boys and girls learn, and why they succeed in different ways, lead some to argue for single-sex schooling in the United States. Those in favor of single-sex schools believe that, by schooling girls and boys separately, teachers can tailor their curricula according to gender. Opponents of single-sex schooling believe that there is no valid reason for segregating schools based on gender.
Single-sex schools have a complex history in the U.S. education system. Founders of public schools wanted to segregate all schools based on sex, but it was expensive and inconvenient to do so; so public schools were integrated. Although many colleges were, and remain, single-sex institutions, an increasing number of elementary and high schools are becoming single-sex, but not without controversy.
It is estimated that 237 schools have single-sex classrooms and 51 public schools are completely single-sex in the United States (National Association for Single Sex Public Education 2006). Many experts, parents, and students argue that students learn better when not distracted by the opposite sex, but others counter that claim by reasoning that the real world is not segregated by sex and therefore single-sex schools do not prepare students for the actual work environment (McCollum 2004).
Those in favor of single-sex schools believe that boys and girls learn differently. Boys enjoy competition and working alone, whereas girls learn through cooperation. Boys and girls interact in the classroom differently, with boys shouting out answers and testing boundaries; girls are more likely to follow rules and thoroughly analyze questions before answering. By placing girls and boys in separate schools, they learn in environments tailored to their sex.
Researchers and educators believe that single-sex schools benefit girls more than they benefit boys, causing girls to develop higher self-esteem than they would in a coeducational school. Girls in single-sex schools are also found to be more likely to be leaders in life and to pursue advanced degrees. In addition, girls in single-sex schools are twice as likely to pursue careers in science compared to girls in coed schools.
Although single-sex schools seem to benefit girls, they have many opponents. Some question the benefits of single-sex schools, for they tend to benefit girls from wealthier backgrounds that could skew their positive effects. Mainly, opponents of single-sex schools believe that coeducational institutions can spark different kinds of learning for every student. The diversity of having both boys and girls is beneficial to the understanding of ideas and viewpoints. They will better prepare students to interact with a more diverse population. Some question whether single-sex schools violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, stating that schools must be integrated.
Some believe that single-sex schools are being used as a type of quick fix to problems in the U.S. education system. For example, in the 1990s, California attempted to operate single-sex schools, which seemed to succeed at first. However, over time, male-only schools became dumping grounds for boys with behavioral, educational, and emotional problems, which drove the schools to close. Although this case is extreme, the decision to implement single-sex schools is one that must be thoughtfully considered. In general, the majority of the U.S. public (68 percent) does not believe in single-sex schooling.
Women’s position in the education system is likely to keep evolving as women continue to succeed in schools. These changes will be closely monitored by researchers and the public as questions are asked about testing gaps and college completion differences. The controversy over how males and females learn will continue as debate over brain differences and social differences continue. A free and equal education is expected in the United States, but how do we feel when one gender seems to be benefiting more than the other? Is there a middle ground between helping girls, who have traditionally been discriminated against in schools, succeed versus not wanting to diminish the success of boys?
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